Thursday, 14 November 2013

Le Mary Celeste: This is why I'm hot!

Le Mary Celeste won an award today. It was for best bar/restaurant in Paris. Well, at least I think it was for best bar/restaurant. I can’t quite be sure. My French is bad and the award was written in bright pink cursive lettering which confused me. So lets just say for now, tentatively, barring any translator errors, that everybody involved in LMC has the right to shout out, "Yaaayyyyyyyy!!!!!"

It's no secret that LMC's first goal was to win the award for "best brick work in Paris" and we are gutted that we didn't. But we will settle for the award we were given, and are very proud of the fact that in only nine months, our little place has done pretty well for itself. The reception from guests, the press and those within our industry has been at once, frightening,  humbling and immensely motivating. 

A lot has been said and written about  what an amazing job Joshua Fontaine, Carlos Madriz, Carina and Adam Tsou have done to make LMC what it is. These accolades are well-deserved. Niceties have been tossed at the kitchen too. And though I hardly feel deserving, I have been immensely grateful for the reception my food has gotten and have tried to take these compliments with as much gratitude and grace as my lanky, compression sock-wearing, monotone voiced self can muster. 

But it was not so long ago I was just a line cook, with not even the faintest idea that this kind of recognition was going to come. And I felt then, as I feel even more strongly now, that nothing that chefs or owners or managers do would be possible without a loyal, happy, hard working staff. We would just be a bunch of unemployed people with “good ideas”. 

So this award is a big thank you to those who grind it out under us. To those who work 12-14 hour days and don’t get their names printed in magazines. To those who come to work and rock service even though they’re hungover or sick or they stubbed a toe. And, of course, especially, this for those in the kitchen, who have let me be able to cook the food I love, who are almost never unpleasant to work with, who work extra fast on Thursdays so I can do Jiu Jitsu class in the mornings, who have not only become great co-workers, but friends as well. This is for you. 

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Andouillette: A Brief Cautionary Tale

My first few days in Paris are done. I should have lots to write about. Lots of good things. Lots of exciting things. And I do, I think. Well, to be honest, I can't be sure. My brain has been left scattered by the traumatizing memory of having to eat that anal-perfumed French delicacy known as andouillette. 

Andouillette is a traditional French sausage. It's made from the intestines and colon of a pig. The French are mad for it. They love it. They have secret orders that worship it. And you'll find it on most menus in traditional bistros. The problem is that it tastes like shit. That's not a euphemism. Literally, it tastes like shit.

When I was in Denmark I was tricked into thinking that I like it. My friend had bought one in France and cooked it for me and the Cambodian. It was delicious. It had a looser texture than most sausages but it was made from ground meat. It had a pleasing sour taste. And served with a glass of wine and cooked cabbage it made for one of the best food memories I had while in Copenhagen.

When I came to Paris I had to have it. It had been on my mind for ten months. I researched a reliable bistro where it was served and I went there. When I sat down I didn't look at the menu. I knew what I wanted. It was andouillette or nothing. I ordered it with confidence.

When the andouillette came to the table my excitement to indulge was quickly replaced by a heavy sense of dread. That was followed rapidly by a varying list of emotions that ranged from shock to remorse. The smell was intense. Imagine a small barn full of defecating animals. Then take away the sweet, grassy smell of hay. That is the aroma of andouillette.

I cut the "sausage" open despite the sternest reservations from my senses.  I put "sausage" in quotations here, because what I ended up cutting into was not so much a homogenous package of ground meat as it was a loose parcel of intestines. It felt like I was eviscerating an animal.

I have eaten many things in my life that have looked foul and proved to be delicious. Sadly, though, this was not the case with anduilette. I tried to eat that sausage for nearly 30 minutes, naively thinking that the taste would somehow improve. I was wrong. It tasted as it smelled. Possibly worse. And it never got better. In the end, I had to leave a third of it on my plate.

I left the bistro and spiraled immediately into a haze of self-loathing. On the one hand, I couldn't believe that I had been so soundly defeated by a piece of food. On the other, I couldn't believe I had forced myself to eat 200g of something that tasted like a pig pen.

I have always been a proponent of immersing myself into the food cultures of the countries in which I have lived and traveled in. But this experience has taught me that I'd rather abstain from taking part in cultural activities that taste like shit.

Friday, 27 July 2012

Toronto: It's All About that Ethnic Food

Before leaving Toronto I wanted to write a going away blog. And I did. I finished it a few minutes ago. The only problem is that, once I started editing it, I realised I hadn't said what I wanted to say. And, for me at least, what I wanted to say had to be said.

So here I am again, trying to write about my last four months in Toronto. And really, when all is said and done, all I want to say is this: I've never been to a place with food as good as Toronto's. I'm pissed that we don't get the recognition as one of the great food capitals. And I'm tired of the "foodies", cooks and other industry people that go on about Toronto's horrible restaurants and slag the food we have in this city.

Fine. We don't have michelin star level restaurants. And if you are marking Toronto's food scene by some Western European fine dining rubric, our city under-performs when compared to New York, Paris or London. But who cares? If you want a lobe of foie gras, wrapped in hay ash gel go to another city. Toronto is all about that immigrant cooking.

That greasy, soupy, fragrant, mouth-watering immigrant cooking.

I don't care if Copenhagen has the best restaurant in the world or that Tokyo has the most michelin stars. Because at the end of the day, you can't ride your bike for twenty minutes in those cities and come across a Korean restaurant making food you could find in Seoul, a Chinese place serving authentic Cantonese barbecue and a Trinidadian shop cooking the most delicious Caribbean food. You couldn't find an El Salvadoran grocery with a kitchen at the back making fresh papusas across the street from a Neapolitan pizzeria. And you couldn't get Pastel de Nata from a Portuguese bakery for dessert after smashing a giant, steaming bowl of Pho.

There is no place, that I have ever been to that has a more vibrant, diverse immigrant population than Toronto. And because of this, we have, probably, the greatest concentration of high quality, authentic and affordable ethnic food on the planet. There is no doubt: if you are into simple, delicious, nourishing grub in all its forms, Toronto is the place to be. It is the food mecca for the everyman of every world.

To all those who love to hate on what this city has to offer gastronomically, I say this: get your head's out of your Eurocentric asses and look around you. Just because the dinner you had at that new hipster restaurant was bad and cost you 100 dollars, doesn't mean the Sri Lankan place in Little India isn't still pumping out mouth watering dosas for 6.99. 

Toronto is special because it is ethnically diverse. Full stop. Our immigrant communities provide us with a quality and plentitude of food choice unparalleled in other cities. Acknowledge this fact, respect it and represent it. 

So, there it is. My farewell to to Toronto. I'm not even going to edit it. Rants are a dish best served salty.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Cooking Local, Cooking Vegetarian on Salt Spring Island

Since leaving Denmark in November, I have been a jobless drifter meandering around three continents and four countries. There are undeniable perks to the life of a global vagrant: no stress, no commitments and the ability to relax whenever you want being chief among them.

But, at some point, one does have to work. Especially someone who is used to working long hours.  Five months of joblessness is just too long. So when the Cambodian and I stopped over on Salt Spring Island to visit some of my family at the beginning of March, we thought it was high time we did something productive.

I contacted some restaurants around the island to see if anybody was willing to lend us their kitchen and dining room for a night, and much to our delight, a little restaurant in Ganges obliged us.

The plan was to use the facilities for a dinner that would be quite similar to the one I did in the fall. That is, the food would be vegetarian and highlight local, organic produce. It would also be served family style. The one main difference between the previous dinner and the Salt Spring Island one was the scale of the event. Whereas in November we served 12 guests, the Salt Spring dinner was planned for over 40.

In hindsight, jumping off a plane from New Zealand and trying to promote, organize, source ingredients, design original menus and cook for an event of 45 people in a little over two weeks time seems a bit ridiculous. Even more so when you consider that we had absolutely zero connections to the food industry on the island.

Indeed, doing a dinner like this in Toronto under the same circumstances probably would have been impossible. Luckily for us, Salt Spring is no Toronto. The community there is small and supportive and the news about our dinner spread quickly. On the night of the event, we had a full restaurant.

Cooking your own food for paying customers is an interesting experience. If you are not used it, like us, it can be extremely nerve-wracking. It's one thing to cook somebody else's food. In that situation, you do your best to strive for excellence, but, in general, you have no emotional attachment to the dishes you are cooking or putting together. However, when you create your own menu, it is a different story. You have a lot riding on whether your guests enjoy what they are eating.

It was a great relief for us when the food ended up being well received. More than that, it was humbling and overwhelming. Though we are not confident enough to be considering opening our own restaurant quite yet, the reactions to the dinner did do their part in reassuring us that we are trudging along in the right direction.

This event would not have been possible without the support of the people on Salt Spring Island, my family and some very talented cooks that volunteered their time to help us. Sincerest thanks to all those that helped make this night one to remember.

Here are some of the dishes we did:

Smoked white bean soup, grilled kale and preserved lemon
Caramelized cauliflower, cauliflower purée, crispy spelt and herbs
Mushroom and baked mashed potato pie, breadcrumbs and dill
Spring greens, brown butter dressing 
Parsnip mousse, sugared parsnips and olive oil

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Auckland: The Cambodians 3

We are leaving soon. I am little sad. It's going to be hard to say goodbye to the Cambodian's family--for me, for her, and, I hope, in my own selfish way, for them too. Because it would be nice if they liked me as much as I  have come to like them.

This trip would not have been the same without the Cambodians. Not even close.  I could have come alone to New Zealand. I could have done the usual hiking,rafting and meeting of backpacker friends that seems to be the norm for young Canadian travelers here. It would have been fine. But I am infinitely happier knowing that I spent a good part of a month in the Auckland suburbs, being ferried from large Asian gathering to large Asian gathering, getting inspected, judged and reamed with food by a never ending gaggle of noisy little people. 

It's been the interactions with them that have made this trip. They have been entertaining, educational and frightening in equal doses. They have showed me the comedic value inherent in a strong Cambodian accent. They have taught me a little Chinese. And they have instilled in me a deep respect for, and understanding of, that eternal truth which before I only had a vague grasp of. That is, don't mess with old Asian ladies. 

When we leave I'll miss Mushroom auntie who introduced me to the world of illegal Vietnamese catering and has a way, somehow, of conveying affection through an insinuation of physical violence.

I'll miss Chinese auntie who, in those first few nervous days of me stumbling around the Cambodian's relations, distracted my worrying mind with delicious food and kindness.

I'll miss Chicken uncle and his infectious, thunderclap laugh.

I'll miss all the aunties and uncles and cousins who, one way or another, made this trip enjoyable on so many levels.

Of course, I'll miss the Cambodian's parents too. Despite their initial wariness, they have made a habit out of treating me with the greatest generosity. They have introduced me to the world of New Zealand meat pies. And have showed me how to bargain hunt and how to make beef fried noodles. Most of all, they have reinforced in me the understanding that cooking for a living is not  hard or bad ass. Coming to a new country with no money, buying your own bakery and working at it for 16 hours a day, seven days a week, for the past 15 years-- that is bad ass.

Thanks to all the Cambodians.


Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Auckland: The Cambodians 2

I ate food from an illegal restaurant this week. I knew it was going to be good before I got there. The Cambodian's aunt had been insisting on taking us for weeks. And, when it comes to food, she doesn't mess around.

Still, I didn't quite know what to expect. It's not like I have made a habit out of frequenting illegal restaurants. Especially ones that are run by a Vietnamese couple out of their suburban home. The over-sanitized Canadian in me has always imagined black market eateries to be greasy cesspits run by food hygiene course dropouts.

To get to this place, we drove 40 minutes across town to a part of Auckland that, politely put, is a tad rough. When we got to a stoplight, the Cambodian's aunt mentioned, rather casually, that, in this part of the city, she only carried her personal items in a shopping bag to make herself look less robable.

After briefly getting lost, we pulled into the mini parking lot of an average looking suburban home. The windows were covered by what some people may call curtains, or by what others may describe as cardboard. We made our way down a dark, narrow alley and up to the rickety door of a shuddered back sun room. When we knocked, we heard some shuffling coming from a window above our heads.

It is fair to say, that, at that point, having taken into account my current surrounds and the drive by which we got to them, my hopes of eating something delicious dwindled slightly. It seemed more likely to me that I was going to be introduced to the friendly proprietors of the neighbourhood meth-lab. Once the door was opened though, my worries dissipated rather quickly.

The woman who answered the door was a middle aged Vietnamese lady. She was wearing a two-piece faux silk pink pajama ensemble. Just behind her we could see her husband sitting on a stool making handmade rice noodles stuffed with pork. My initial thought was this: if a woman is confident enough to run a black market eatery out of her house, wearing nothing but shiny pink night wear and slippers, there is no way her food is going to be bad.

If this couple knew English, they didn't show it. But they were pleasant enough. And after some brief chit chat with the Cambodian's aunt, the back alley caterers took some of our money in exchange for a few plastic containers full of rice noodles, herbs, fried shallots and nuoc nam, that delicious fish sauce condiment that Vietnamese seem to pour on everything.

Needless to say, when we finally got to eat it, the food ended up being delicious. I doubt places like this would exist if they weren't offering something very special. I felt lucky to have been taken there. And the experience led me to wonder about all the amazing dodgy suburban eating spots I have missed out on in  Toronto and Vancouver. That thought is impetus enough for me to start learning a variety of south east Asian languages. Because, of course, you can't find these type of places without a linguistic "in" to recent immigrant communities.Thank god the Cambodian and her family have introduced me to this new world. It feels like I have been reborn. 

Monday, 6 February 2012

The South Island

For those who don't know, the South Island of New Zealand is where they shot most of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. It's a pretty cool place.  You can imagine it being some far off fantasy land. And, indeed, within a second of stepping off the plane in Queenstown, I had the overwhelming urge to dress like an elf and run around the countryside hunting orcs with my mystical bow and arrows. I am serious. I was one wizard hair away from bailing on my plans to visit my friends and leaving the Cambodian on the tarmac so that I could go quest through "Midddle Earth", Lord of the Rings styles.

Lucky for my relantionship(s), my urge to nerd-out abated after a few hours, and I was able to appreciate the landscape solely for its stunning, rugged beauty.

Queenstown is nice, but it's small and filled with tourists. One day we had an impromptu karaoke session with the drunken stragglers from a Korean tour bus. On another day, we walked around the entire town about 79 times. It was sometime in between those two events that we decided that, maybe, we ought to set out from Queenstown if we were to find more enriching forms of entertainment.

My friend Michelle took us on a 9 hour hike up a mountain. She is an experienced hiker and rock climber. The Cambodian and I have just spent the last year and a half in Denmark, hunched over stoves, slowly wilting away into droopy, muscularly deficient gimps. Michelle's idea of a beginner hike was having us free climb a rock face for 200m to get to the top of a mountain. I guess, for her, since she is part god damn mountain goat, it was a beginner hike. For us, though, we spent a good part of an hour trying to reach the summit whimpering and muttering quiet, fear-fueled curses while we did our best not to fall to our deaths.

In the end, we didn't quite make it to the top. But the experience did teach me two valuable things. First, my friends are liars. Second, I am  incredibly lucky to have the Cambodian by my side during these adventures. There are few other people I know that approach new activities and experiences with so little prejudice or judgment. Whether it is living in another country or slogging up a mountain for 9 hours, I never have to worry if she is game for trying something new.

A few days later, the Cambodian and I hitchhiked to Edievale, two and a half hours south of Queenstown. We stayed with two small holders, Michelle and Paul, to see if we could learn a little more about organic farming. As is generally the case with people that give gratis room and board to free-loading hitch hikers like us, they were an amazingly kind and generous couple.

 For us, their little farm was quite idyllic. There was plenty of fresh vegetables, chickens, a pig and a whole lot of beehives. We learned how to felt, which is a cool skill to have. Though the experience did convince me that even if you are the greatest felter on the planet, your clothing is still going to look like it was made by an acid-tripping blind six year old (Though, as of yet, I am not sure if that is entirely bad).

We also harvested  honey. This was educational and, at times, extremely painful. After about my third sting, I made an oath to myself that I will never again be wasteful of honey. Artisan bee keepers earn their money, trust me.

Michelle and Paul only had a wood fired stove. After getting used to it, using a stove like that proved to be extremely rewarding. There is something about cooking over burning wood, that is so old school, your food can't help but taste good.

Besides having a very uncongenial one night relationship with some of Paul's homemade rhubarb wine, our time on the farm was amazing.Time at Edievale went by too fast. We were very sorry to leave.

So, that has been the last two weeks summed up. And, just like that, we are back in Auckland, where the smell of rice porridge and the sound of Chinese soap operas reminds us that we are, once again, back with the Cambodians.